RALEIGH, N.C. — Few could have imagined back in 1924 that the newborn Diocese of Raleigh would take root in the soil of North Carolina and become a Catholic powerhouse in the nation’s South.
Ninety years later, and rapidly expanding, the diocese is home to the only Catholic cathedral currently under construction in the United States, a testament to the vibrancy of its people’s faith.
Bishop Michael Burbidge announced the construction of Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral at a press conference in May.
Noting the rapid growth of the diocese, the bishop said it is his “hope, dream and prayer to build a mother church, to build a cathedral” to replace the existing Sacred Heart Cathedral in downtown Raleigh.
Sacred Heart Cathedral has a capacity of 320 people and was originally completed in 1924, when the Catholic population of the state was just 6,000. Today, however, the cathedral has burst its seams, serving a parish base of 3,000 Catholics in a diocese that is home to almost half a million Catholics, or 4.8% of the state’s population.
“We have people literally out in the street,” the bishop said, pointing out that Christmas and Easter celebrations see typically 13-14 Masses, with overflow locations at the cathedral-school basement and local Clarion hotel unable to serve the influx of worshippers.
Bishop Burbidge told reporters that the cathedral helps the bishop “gather the faithful of the diocese to worship as one.”
“Our current cathedral does not [allow that], because it is the smallest one in the U.S., except for Juneau, Alaska.”
Bishop Burbidge explained the diocese has seen 180% growth since 1990. By 2030, the diocese is expected to serve more than 1 million Catholics. “We are a vibrant diocese,” he said.
The bishop added that 1,200 people came into the Church at this year’s Easter vigil, he is celebrating the confirmation of 3,500 high-schoolers in 2014, and he just dedicated his 11th new church in his eight years as bishop.
Bishop Burbidge revealed that the new cathedral responded to the input of the faithful he received on a listening tour throughout the diocese. The consensus was for a cathedral that was big (seating no fewer than 2,000 persons), placed the faithful close to the altar with a new cruciform design and had a beauty drawn from the Church’s architectural tradition.
“The people were also very clear in recognizing that we need to build a church that is beautiful and will give glory to God and will be timeless,” he said.
That input actually led the diocese to go with a new architect, James O’Brien of the O’Brien & Keane firm.
“I think this [design] holds true to the sacred, timeless, traditional things we said we would not compromise,” the bishop said.
O’Brien built the stunning St. Catherine of Siena Church in Wake Forest, N.C., and said in statements to the diocesan faithful that Holy Name of Jesus will draw on the church’s “2,000-year heritage of sacred architecture” to become “a traditional cathedral for modern days.”
Cecelia Flanary, a Catholic mother and grandmother in Raleigh, came on board with others to support the new cathedral project when the traditional design assured them it would not look like the dated “spaceship” architecture of some churches in recent decades.
“My first thought was: conversions. We will have conversions from people in Raleigh who otherwise would never have the chance to visit the great cathedrals in Europe,” she said. “And they’ll see this incredible beauty of the Catholic faith.”
The bishop said the 22,000 pledges gathered so far were a free response from a “good faith campaign” the diocese presented about the need for a new cathedral. No parishes were taxed or levied, and the new cathedral will be built with the contributions of the people, not debt.
The diocese has raised more than $34.7 million from redeemed pledges for the cathedral, and has $6.3 million left to go. Bishop Burbidge expressed confidence to reporters based on “very positive feedback” that excitement is building, and so contributions will continue to pour in to meet that shortfall.
“From our point of view, we’re optimistically anticipating to break ground in December,” he said, adding that the project will probably take two years to complete.
He also envisioned that the new cathedral will host “beautiful concerts” of sacred music, a bishop lecture series featuring noted theologians and other guest speakers and help serve the needs of non-Catholic neighbors.
“In other words, a cathedral is always known as a learning center,” he said.
He said that undeveloped land on the site will be allocated to the cathedral school, should it wish to move in the future from its campus next to Sacred Heart Cathedral. The current plan is for the Sacred Heart Cathedral school to build a gymnasium, as the downtown location does not have space for those facilities.
But Sacred Heart Cathedral will not retire once Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral takes its place, but instead will take on a new role for the diocese’s evangelization of downtown Raleigh.
“We will keep that presence,” the bishop said, explaining that it will not only serve those working in the downtown community, but also provide critical support for Catholic Charities in offering services to the most needy of Raleigh.
A Holy Place
The new cathedral is going to be built on land that has special significance for the diocese.
Billy Atwell, the diocese’s communications director, told the Register that the site is called “Nazareth” and “began as a place for missionary work” 113 years ago.
“The current site was purchased by Servant of God Father Thomas Price, the first native North Carolinian to be ordained a Catholic priest, who now has a cause for beatification and canonization in Rome,” he said.
Flanary, who is working to begin a Divine Mercy Radio station in Raleigh, said she is excited about the new possibilities for evangelization. She hopes that the city will put in bus lines to make it easier for the poor to access and enjoy the church’s beauty.
“It is just a matter of time before more people come into the Church,” she predicted.
And just like the hardworking people of Europe who financed the building of their cathedrals with the pennies in their pockets to reflect the glory of the faith, she said, “I can say to my grandchildren and great-grandchildren that I helped build this.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.